DESPITE ITS TITLE, there are no long male shadows cast across the plot of Mary Gordon's latest novel, as there were in her much-acclaimed debut, Final Payments, and its successor, The Company of Women. Unless, that is, you count the Man Upstairs, always a looming presence in her fiction, and this time appearing not in Gordon's familiar Catholic setting but in the fundamentalist guise of "the implacable God of Moses."

This stern force moves, surprisingly enough, in a world of education and culture in which talking about religion is almost as uncouth as talking about one's sex life. But that doesn't mean old-fashioned religion's deeper moral impulses have disappeared. Instead they've been channeled into such considerations as friendship, mother love, and concern for the needy. And, as this challenging novel makes plain, they're just as potent as they ever were in the days before praying became unchic.

The two women at the center of the story are almost polar opposites. One, Anne Foster, is immediately attractive: charming, intelligent, good-looking, modest, generous, and, above all, devoted to her two young children. On her own in a small college town while her professor husband takes a temporary teaching assignment in France, she devotes herself not only to her family but to her burgeoning career as an art historian, researching an exhibition of the works of Caroline Watson, a painter of domestic scenes who's been dead and almost forgotten for 50 years.

In contrast, Laura Post, hired to care for Anne's children, is a stolid, ungainly, humorless young girl, a forlorn and lonely runaway, without social graces and without any interests aside from her Bible-reading. Anne recogizes the needs of a person like Laura, "so unloved, so unmothered," but her pity is mingled with an unreasonable dislike, and her attention is distracted as she draws closer and closer to the subject of her scholarly work, the exuberant and unconventional Caroline Watson, and to the executor of the Watson estate, Caroline's formidable daughter-in-law Jane.

This exploration of "the machinery of affection," and the ways in which it is set in motion or ground to a halt, is shown in contrasting lights by the narrative technique of the novel, which alternates chapters from Anne's and Laura's points of view. Thus we watch as Laura's increasingly frightening religious beliefs are fed by her yearning for Anne's love, by her resolution to save Anne from the delusion that the life of the family and the flesh is important. At the same time, unaware of Laura's feelings, Anne engages in her own struggles -- against jealousy and infidelity, and against the threat to her deeply rooted protective image of mother love, which she cannot reconcile with her newfound regard for Caroline Watson, who drove her only son to an early death.

IT'S A STORMY emotional sea that Anne and Laura have been launched upon, one that might be tamed by saints but is unmanageable for all too fallible mortals. And so their voyage together will end in tragedy, yielding a dearly bought and not very consoling wisdom. From all this, one might expect Gordon's novel to be a cold, forbidding morality play. But it gradually reveals itself as a spirited and absorbing tale, filled with the lush details of daily life, at times funny, at others achingly sad.

It's also a superbly crafted story, with characters whose strengths and weaknesses mirror each other in ways that prevent pat judgments about either. Laura longs to live alone with Anne in a house by a lake, just as Anne longs, through writing about Caroline, to "build a house for a woman she loved." One impulse results in death, the other in new life for the work of a forgotten artist. Anne hungers for friendship with Jane Watson and her wish is granted, while Laura, whose desires are just as fervent, remains an intruder. Anne, a mother who would die for her children, fails to keep them from danger, but Caroline, who neglected her own flesh and blood, turns out to be "a mother made in heaven" for Jane.

In plumbing these mysterious contradictions, these complexities of sexual and emotional union, of the urge to protect and the urge to destroy, of creating a life's work and letting go the lives of others, Gordon makes us reconsider many of our most basic assumptions. And she does so in a highly accomplished fashion, using fluid, graceful prose in which the subtle images of blood and water, of rough oceans and fordable rivers -- even the safely domestic vision, as seen in Caroline Watson's painting, of a woman in a bath -- evoke the power of uncontrollable events, and equally uncontrollable emotions, to brim up from even the calmest surfaces and wash us away. "It was the strongest love she knew," Anne muses at the close of her story, "this mother love, knit up of blood, but it knew nothing, and it could keep nothing back."